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Finally, the flu name game is resolved

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-05-06

The name game to characterise the latest viral outbreak has been resolved, with the WHO switching to the more politically – and scientifically – correct "influenza A (H1N1)". But will the “swine” misnomer stick in public memory?

The deadly viral epidemic is still raging across the world, but for now, the debate on just what to call it has been resolved. Or so it would seem.


When the news of the new flu virus gripped headlines across the world, it was initially called “swine flu” since the epidemic is believed to have originated around the vicinity of a pig farm in eastern Mexico.


Health officials believe pigs served as the incubator for the new virus strain, which is a mixture of genetic material from swine, human and bird flu strains.


But pork and hog associations cried foul, charging that the misnomer was taking the meat out of their business.


Despite the outcry, the WHO (World Health Organization) stuck firmly with its official “swine influenza” designation – until Thursday.


"From today, WHO will refer to the new influenza virus as 'influenza A (H1N1)'," the UN organisation announced in a statement posted on its Web site on Thursday.


Boggling list of misnomers


The decision appears to have resolved a raging nomenclature debate in the international health and agricultural communities.


For nearly a week, the list of likely names included a combustive mix of misnomers that sparked spats between diplomats, farmers and medical experts.


The list included “swine flu”, “Mexican flu”, “North American flu”, “new flu”, as well as “H1N1 flu” – to name just a few.


For English speakers, a further list of permutations involved swapping the term “flu” with “influenza”.


Not kosher, nor Mexican

The term “swine flu” turned out to be a hot potato among populations that follow religious dietary restrictions.


In Egypt, the already fraught relations between the country’s minority Coptic Christian community and its Sunni Muslim majority worsened when government officials seized and slaughtered pigs, often without compensation.


Egypt’s pig farms are mainly Copt-owned since religious Muslims consider pork “haram” or forbidden.


In the Jewish state of Israel, where pork is considered not kosher, a minor diplomatic spat broke out when a senior Israeli health official from the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism Party wanted the name changed to "Mexican flu".

But the suggestion irked the Mexican ambassador to Israel, Frederico Salas, who formally protested to the Israeli government. Israeli officials promptly caved in and vetoed the “Mexican flu” option.


The "North American" experience


In Europe, the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health – known by its French acronym, OIE – warned that the term “swine flu” is a misnomer. Instead, the organisation proposed the term “North American influenza” in keeping with a tradition of identifying outbreaks with the region of origin.

The US appeared to be ahead of the curve with US officials using the more politically correct – and scientifically accurate – “H1N1 flu” quite early in the name game. This followed strong protests from US pork and hog associations.


In his comments earlier this week, US President Barack Obama noticeably referred to the new strain as “H1N1 flu”. Senior US officials, including Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, also switched to "H1N1”.


For now, the pig seems to have escaped a vicious defamatory onslaught. But in some places and in some cases, it might just be too late.


Pork imports have declined with countries such as Russia, China and South Korea to name just a few, banning US pork imports.


And in Egypt, the beleaguered Coptic Christian community believes the government’s decision to cull pigs is just another expression of Egyptian Muslims’ resentment against Christians, a sentiment they are not likely to forget in the near future.

Date created : 2009-05-01